November 8, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• Join Stereophile's Reader Editorial Board, by Stereophile Staff
• 2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide Now Available, by John Atkinson
• We Get Letters, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

Join Stereophile's Reader Editorial Board, by Stereophile Staff

Stereophile serves the world of high-end audio by striving to be the most authoritative source of information. In order to better serve that goal, we are inviting you to join Stereophile's Reader Editorial Board. We'd like to get your opinion on cover options, topics you'd like to see and what we can do to enhance your Stereophile experience. To get involved, and make your opinion known, please click here to begin:

2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide, by John Atkinson

The 2006 edition of the Stereophile Buyer's Guide is out now. Listing the specifications of more than 5000 audio components within its 212 large-format pages, the Buyer's Guide is exclusively concerned with products for music reproduction, as opposed to the bangs, bonks, and battle noises typical of movie soundtracks.

In addition to the listings, Stereophile's editors and writers offer advice on how to get the best from LP playback systems, loudspeakers, amplifiers, and digital source components, while "Music in the Round" columnist Kalman Rubinson offers practical advice on setting up a multichannel music system.

The 2006 Stereophile Buyer's Guide is available only on newsstands, cover price $6.99.

Simaudio Ltd.
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WE GET LETTERS, by Wes Phillips

One thing about the Internet—you sure get feedback. I got lots of responses to my adventures in ripping LPs last month, beginning with a note from editor John Atkinson before the eNewsletter even went out:

"I am concerned that you don't appear to be sensitive to the need to precisely match the output level of your phono preamp to the dynamic-range window of the computer's A/D converter. The problem you described as having with Dragon Burn! sounded to me like ADC overload."

Hmmm. And to think I thought the whole process was going to be simple. JA went on: "This is why I ask about normalizing [amplifying the track so that it peaks at a preset level]: Most A/D converters provide the cleanest sound if underdriven a little, peaking at, say, –6dBFS. But once you have captured a track as a .WAV or .AIF file, you should normalize it to peak at 0dBFS. However, if you are recording an album's worth of tracks, you need to normalize just the loudest one, then amplify all the others by exactly the same amount so you preserve the loudness differences between tracks. (With modern rock albums, of course, there are no loudness differences between tracks.)"

Oh-ho—so I needed to find a way to normalize my files. A quick check with my guru (that would be JA again) and I was pointed toward HairerSoft's Amadeus II v3.8.4, a powerful sound editor for the Mac workspace. Amadeus not only allowed me to normalize my files, it offered fast filters, spectral analysis, and improved "sound-repairing" functions (such as noise removal). Amadeus has all the mod cons and can run high sample rates and bit depths. Best of all, I could buy it for as little as $30.

A quick download and I had the latest version of Amadeus, but I was concerned—needlessly, it turned out—about how difficult the normalization process would be. Once you have an edited file in Amadeus, all you have to do is pull down the Effects menu and choose Normalize. That conjures up a window that allows you to set a value to normalize to, such as 95% of maximum. You also get to set the reference to either Maximal Sample Value or Maximal RMS Power. Hit OK and the process is automatic—and you're shown a graphic representation of your file. If you're overloading, it'll redline and you can try again with a different value.

Even this isn't as simple as it seems, however. JA's final warning: "Some audiophiles feel you should normalize to a lower peak level than 0dBFS—say, –3dBFS—because cheap D/A converters don't sound as good in their top 3dB of dynamic range." So, as usual, you do the best you can and then you rely on your ears.

I went back and looked at some of my DragonBurn! files. Sure enough, they were in the red. On the other hand, I was able to increase the level on the files I'd burned in Toast with CD Spin Doctor and got even better sound than I'd been happy with previously.

I received an e-mail from Keith Leech, who wanted to know more about the Music Hall MMF-9 turntable I'd used. He wrote: "I've been waiting for an established reviewer to comment on this turntable online—preferably Mikey,1 but you've reviewed turntables before, too. Most of the Music Hall 'tables are pretty inexpensive, but $1500 is real money. Is the MMF-9 worth it?"

In a word, yes. The first thing that impressed me about the MMF-9 was its simplicity. It's no more complicated than it needs to be. The three-layer plinth employs Sorbothane elastomer "springs" between the layers. These don't offer the last word in isolation from external shocks, but unlike mechanical springs, they don't require tricky adjustment. Unpack the plinth, thread in the pointed feet, and you've accomplished 50% of the MMF-9's setup right there. Here's the other half:

Remove a red cap from the bearing well and carefully lower the platter's spindle into position. It's a snug fit, so it takes a few seconds for the spindle to slowly seat itself against the inverted ceramic ball bearing. Add the supplied Ringmat and you're nearly done.

The motor is separate; you use a spacer to position it correctly in relation to the platter, which means when the belt is stretched to the proper tension. Connect the motor to the speed control and attach the DC power supply to the other end of the speed control, and the power connections are done.

That leaves setting up the tonearm. Well, actually, most of that is already done, because the carbon-fiber arm is mounted to the plinth and the cartridge is mounted to the arm's aluminum headshell. All that's left for you to do is install the counterweight on the arm, and hang the threaded antiskating weight from the arm's little nubbin. Connect a pair of audio cables to the breakout box and the heavy lifting's over. Position the dustcover on the hinges and setup is done.

But I'm an old-school audiophile who distrusts a certain amount of such convenience. When I ran into problems ripping LPs (described in excruciating detail last month), I immediately suspected that the MMF-9's setup was contributing to the distortions I was hearing. We now know it was my unfamiliarity with setting digital levels, but I checked the tonearm geometry and balance and found both to be spot on. I also put a better shelf under the turntable, but I've done that with just about every turntable I've ever reviewed, and it always makes a difference. Heck, it works with CD players, too.

Of course, convenience isn't everything. There's how it sounds, too. That's where the MMF-9 really impressed me. If you haven't heard a really good LP in a while, you tend to forget how good they can sound. That's not news to hard-core analog enthusiasts, but the rest of us sometimes forget.

I'm not arguing that LPs are superior to CDs—or to SACDs or DVD-Audios or open-reel tapes or any other format, for that matter. They are different from CDs, and everyone reading this has probably already decided which format floats his or her boat. Having lived in the digital realm for a fairly long while, however, I have to admit that I still feel I've come home when I hear the vinyl roar of a lead-in groove segue into that oh-so-palpable sense of musical presence.

Ahhhh . . .

The combo of Music Hall MMF-9 turntable, Maestro phono cartridge, and Whest PS.20 phono amp gave me that homecoming feeling. After I'd taken care of ripping the few LPs I'd stockpiled for the project, I hooked the outputs of the Whest to my guilty-pleasure, late-night-listening setup of Channel Islands VHP•1 headphone amplifier and Sennheiser HD-600 headphones, and reveled in the rich, present analog sound.

When CD first came along, I was quite partisan about my preference for analog. To see what all the fuss was about, I bought a Magnavox CD-100 and 10 CDs. What I heard was flatness, spitchy highs, a hard-sounding midrange, and a completely unconvincing bottom end. I returned the player to Stereo Exchange within the five-day grace period.

"It's broken," I insisted. "It can't possibly be supposed to sound like that."

Stereo Exchange's Dave Wasserman, already used to dealing with the newly brewing digital vs analog war, sighed. "Let's just say this isn't for you. Want to see the new Kiseki Blue cartridge I just got in?" The man had my number.

Well, things have improved since those days—in both CD players and the CD mastering process. In fact, although the 10 first-generation CDs I'd purchased for my brief digital fling were all highly regarded at the time, I suspect my home-ripped CDs all sound substantially better.

I'm being too kind. I know they sound better. After all, I can stand to listen to 'em. More than that, I think they sound really good. But there's still something a touch warmer and more palpable about listening to recordings in their vinyl originals. Part of that is that no copy, no matter how "lossless," is as good as the original—you'd be appalled to hear how much information is lost between the master of a CD and the first CD pressing, for instance.

I suspect that another part of it is that the LP remains a format deeply rooted in the physical world. That's one of those feature/bug dichotomies, I guess. If you like analog, the whole process is sort of reassuring. A record is a comfortingly large solid object, and a turntable is an iconic presence. You interact with the LP, from extracting it from its liner to lowering the tonearm to setting the stylus in the groove to turning the record over at the end of the side.

Let's face it, for many people who couldn't wait for the LP to be replaced, all of that fiddling around was a pain in the butt—as was the feeling that, every time you listened to such a "physical" medium, you might discover new evidence of its physicality. Where'd thatscratch come from?

Please Mikey, don't hurt me—I know that properly handled LPs played on a righteously set-up turntable don't collect scratches every time you play 'em. However, even the most ardent analog lover will have to admit that sometimes bad scratches happen to good people. That in itself was enough to send many listeners in the direction of CD.

Speaking of lowering the stylus into the groove, that's the one area where I was less than thrilled with the performance of the MMF-9. Its tonearm lift has tons of drift, so I found it far more effective as an, ummm, arm lifter than as an arm lowerer. For that, I had to rely on the old "steady the hand with a pinky on the plinth" maneuver I'd perfected over all the years I used my Naim Aro—which had no arm lift, of course.

Sorry, Keith. I have digressed. My original point was that I do like the Music Hall MMF-9 and recommend it—especially if you don't have an arsenal of setup tools or a local hi-fi shop with a wizard turntable technician, a species now becoming distressingly rare.

I got one other response to last month's eNewsletter. My neighbor Jeff Wong actually managed to track down a released-just-this-minute CD edition of The East Village Other (ESP Disk 1034) and gave it to me for my birthday. As I said last time, whole swaths of this recording are just sonically atrocious, but listening to it reminds me of friends now sadly departed—and, now, of new friends as well.

One of the most important functions of music is the way it arrests time. Time spent listening to music is experienced differently from time spent doing anything else. Sometimes the moment is prolonged, sometimes it's compressed. (Leibniz said, "Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.") Add memory to music and you get a combination that transcends, even suspends time. It can be a cathedral to loved ones and beloved times. As silly as much of The East Village Other is, it's an edifice where I'll be spending a lot of time in days to come.

Contact Wes at

Footnote 1: Michael Fremer wrote about the Music Hall MMF9 in his August 2003 "Analog Corner" column.—Ed.

Mark Levinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit
From Wes Phillips

Heck, go check out Jeff Wong's website. I love the Flash image of Keef and Ronnie on the opening page. There's lots of good stuff inside, too.

In the meantime, every day I post some URLs of the weirdest websites, some even connected to audio, on my blog at

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